Stoicism And Living A “Rich Life”: An Interview With Ramit Sethi

Ramit Sethi is a New York Times bestselling author of I Will Teach You To Be Rich and founder of IWillTeachYouToBeRich.com and GrowthLab.com. What started as a personal finance blog while studying technology and psychology at Stanford, Ramit has built I Will Teach You To Be Rich into a massive business that has helped over a million people live a “Rich Life”—not just in personal finance, but in all aspects of life: careers, relationships, business, fitness and more. Ramit’s knowledge and insights into the question we are all searching for an answer to—how to live a good life—comes from a deep curiosity and years of studying, testing, and sharing his findings. We are fortunate to have Ramit share some of that with us. Please enjoy our interview with Ramit Sethi!

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Can you tell our readers how I Will Teach You To Be Rich originally started? You built a big business from a personal finance blog that now gets more than 1 million+ readers per month. What is the backstory?

I started this site in 2004 while I was studying technology and psychology at Stanford. I built a system to apply to 60+ scholarships in order to afford my tuition. This system helped me earn enough to attend Stanford. But when I got my first scholarship check, I invested that in the stock market…and immediately lost half my money. It was a super valuable lesson, and that’s when I decided to learn how money really worked.

I saw the “tips” that financial experts kept throwing around—like “cut back on lattes” and “keep a budget”—and they didn’t seem quite right. Seriously, who actually has a budget and happily sticks to it? Who cuts back on enough lattes to actually use those $2-3 savings toward their dream vacation? You would have to cut out over 1,000 lattes!

There was too much advice on what people can’t do with their money. And what I realized was, while most money experts preached a certain philosophy, like the book The Emperor’s New Clothes, these same experts didn’t follow their own advice to “get rich.” I knew there was a better way to use psychology to focus on what actually works. Not just for money, but all aspects of life: money, careers, relationships, business, fitness and more.

We know you are an avid learner and reader. How does philosophy fit into your life? Have you read the Stoics? Do you have a favorite?

One of my favorite things to do is to see someone’s bookshelf. You can tell a lot about someone by the books they read (and the ones they choose to display). I try to find wisdom from different sources and stitch them together in a meaningful way.

For example, in college, some of my favorite classes were on lying and deception (taught by a mathematician and a magician), love and relationships, and technology and ethics.

These days, I seek out wisdom from books and courses and, more and more, from people who share their wisdom behind closed doors.

Many of my own philosophies align with the Stoics: The harder it gets, the more I like it. Seek out wisdom. See things for the way they are, not the way they should be.

I Will Teach You To Be Rich is a bit misleading because you’re not using “rich” solely in a monetary wealth way, right? It’s more all-encompassing about living a good life where you write about entrepreneurship, social skills, fitness, psychology, productivity, etc. and how they all seem connected. What is your definition of a “rich life”?

Exactly. When I say a Rich Life, I’m not applying an arbitrary monetary value, like buying a fancy car or luxury handbag (although those are perfectly fine). I challenge my readers to define their Rich Life and to pursue it unapologetically. I’ll give you an example.

I have a friend who always has fresh flowers throughout her tiny New York apartment. They look amazing. When I asked her how she keeps up and maintains all these fresh flowers, despite her busy full-time job, she told me that she spends the equivalent of a cable bill every month to surround herself with beautiful, artisanal flowers that are delivered to her house every week. Every week…on “just” flowers!

This is the idea of abundance—and living a Rich Life: If you love how flowers look and make you feel in your home, you don’t “save” buying flowers only for special occasions. You make sure you have them around you all the time.

Another recent example of a Rich Life was me being able to step away from my business for six whole weeks to go on my honeymoon. For the first leg of our trip, I brought our parents with us, planning our trip so that they get to experience travel like never before. These were experiences that I will always cherish and remember.

Maybe you want to be able to buy a round of drinks for your friends, always have flowers around you, take loved ones with you on unforgettable vacations, or investing in yourself even when you’re unsure of the outcome. Whatever it is, you alone can define what your Rich Life looks like.

That said, money is obviously a big piece of your work and something you help people get more of. The Stoics write quite a bit about money. Seneca calls wealth a “preferred indifference”—nice to have but you can live just as well without it. They believed we should be wary of pleasures, excess, and material items. What is your viewpoint? Are pleasures and material items a necessity for a good life?

I have a counterintuitive viewpoint on spending money, and I will say that SOMEONE ELSE’S pleasures and material items may not be necessary for living your Rich Life. I’ll explain.

I believe that many of us can learn to be more intentional about choosing where to spend our money. So many of us operate like moths in life, blindly following the light—a Black Friday sale here, our friend showing us their brand new entertainment system, someone on social media promoting something, etc.

I have a concept called Money Dials, where I’ve identified 10 areas in life that people just LOVE to naturally spend their money on. A few Money Dial examples:

  • Travel
  • Health and Fitness
  • Relationships
  • Self-Improvement
  • Convenience

If your Money Dial is fitness and health, for example, you may have no qualms spending $45 to join a single SoulCycle class because you love it. You might even have a higher grocery bill because you value all organic produce–that’s fine. Me, on the other hand, I value convenience, which means I happily pay extra to have pre-cut vegetables, hire an assistant to organize my life and calendar, or have food delivered to me.

I don’t care about organic produce or $10,000 watches, but others might. Recognizing your Money Dials tells you what’s important in YOUR life, and what’s not. Everyone’s Money Dials are different, and that’s what makes this and each of our Rich Lives so interesting.

But I believe it’s OK to want those things, as long as you identify the things that you truly love to spend extravagantly on and you cut back mercilessly on those things that don’t matter to you.

Obviously you advise people to not live above their means. But, what do you think about people who live way below their means? Who skimp and save every penny?

It’s super common to hear about people with an overspending problem … but underspending? This is also a problem. If you make $80,000 but agonize over spending an extra $3 on guacamole, that’s an issue.

If you notice the language of people who do this, most of the time they aren’t saying “I chose to cut back on…” They use words like “horrible” or “guilty.” Just look at these comments here and here. Underspenders also tend to have an all-or-nothing mentality where they’re resistant to change.

If you’ve been told that “saving is good” your entire life, how are you supposed to be comfortable changing that story? If you suddenly increase your income by 50%, no one is telling you to spend it all. Save most of it, but also allow yourself and the ones you love to enjoy some of it.

Habits and routines—such as having an evening routine to reflect on your day and behavior—were very important for the Stoics. You talk about how yours might not be guru-approved. Can you elaborate?

As far as my morning routine goes, I don’t meditate, do affirmations, write in my gratitude journal, or make yak tea for 22 minutes. I actually do everything wrong. I wake up and start scrolling on Instagram. I take a leisurely hour or two before getting to work. I check email first thing, and frequently.

If affirmations and journaling work for you, I think it’s great. What I have a problem with is that these “tactics” are often sold by less well-meaning gurus as a cure-all to the real issue: problems with habits and mindset. In other words, you can adopt the morning routines of successful people, but without going deeper, you’re just copying tactics.

I’m a big believer in building systems. My best morning routine is decided the night before, the week before, and the years before. For example, to maintain high amounts of productivity, I schedule everything in my calendar (to set clear boundaries and tasks), make sure my work area is clean and free of clutter, and get plenty of sleep. These are the things that are NOT sexy and not guru-approved, but these are the fundamentals that if people just got right they could be a world of difference.

You talk about investing heavily in yourself and your rule for books where if you see a book you think you might be interested in, just buy it! What are some books that you think the Daily Stoic audience will enjoy and learn from?

A few books I like to recommend are:

 

 

And if you’re looking to improve your money, my book.

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